Democracy and Nuclear Weapons

30 july 2005

Alexei Arbatov is Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

Resume: The very act of raising the issue of democratic control and accountability in nuclear policy can, at best, evoke bewilderment or, at worst, suspicion of evil intentions. Yet, not only is democratic control a legitimate issue, it is long overdue in Russia’s defense and security policy.

On the eve of the Russian-U.S. summit in Bratislava in March 2005, Russia’s political circles were very agitated. The reason for this mood was due to the ‘leakage’ of information about a Russian-U.S. plan for placing Russia’s nuclear facilities and even its nuclear forces under American control. Despite Moscow’s official denials of these reports, the rumor continues to be the subject of intense debate by politicians and experts.

In reality, of course, there are no plans for U.S. “control” over Russia’s nuclear armaments. Instead, the real debate involves the question of granting U.S. specialists possible access to Russia’s nuclear facilities (including repositories of weapon-grade nuclear materials and munitions). Foreign countries provide financial and technical aid in order to guarantee the physical protection of these facilities, as well as elimination and utilization of their nuclear surpluses.

In the 1990s, the West allocated a total of U.S. $6 billion for these purposes under the well-known Nunn-Lugar program. At the G-8 summit in Kananaskis (Canada) in 2002, Russia was promised an additional $20 billion under the Global Partnership project. Providing a foreign country with such large sums of money from the pockets of its taxpayers, Western governments want to guarantee that the funds are appropriately used. Besides, intelligence services are always eager to obtain additional information on nuclear issues. Since this entire sphere of activity remains hidden under a veil of strict secrecy, the boundary between what is deemed to be secret and non-secret is rather ambiguous and has for years been the subject of delicate negotiations. Incidentally, foreign specialists have already received considerable access to formerly secret facilities, products and information in Russia under the programs sponsored in the 1990s.

The above-mentioned reference to the rumors of foreign control over Russia’s nuclear armaments brings up a real problem: Russia’s own political and democratic control over its nuclear weapons. This involves Russia’s policy for the development, deployment, elimination and utilization of these nuclear armaments either in keeping with international treaties, or on a unilateral basis.

On the face of it, there is no connection between this issue and the sensational reports that Russia may place its nuclear facilities under Washington’s control. Nevertheless, generally speaking, is it possible to combine the incompatible – nuclear weapons and democratic control? It is important not to rush to conclusions and analyze the subject in more detail.


Political control over the state’s defense policy, with regard to both nuclear and conventional armaments, is usually interpreted as a decisive role of political leadership in the decision-making process in this sphere.  

Democratic control, on the other hand, is a much broader concept and implies the role of the legislative branch in devising a defense policy. This is attainable through such mechanisms as the defense budget, major programs and plans for the armed forces’ development, and the ratification of treaties on arms limitation and disarmament. These efforts require the transparency of defense information, including the discussion of important issues in the mass media and specialized publications; otherwise, parliament will become hostage to policies pursued by executive agencies.

Political control is possible in the absence of democratic control. In totalitarian or authoritarian countries, for example, the ruling party’s official bodies and secret services guarantee this kind of control.  

However, democratic control and accountability cannot exist without political control, which implies civilian control over defense and security organizations. Civilians as heads of defense organizations are supposed to be envoys of the political leadership in such organizations, as opposed to representatives of the military bureaucracy, who cannot but represent its own interests before the president or the prime minister. Without control from the country’s political leadership, neither civil society nor the legislative branch can directly influence the powerful, united and secluded military establishment.  

In other words, political control over executive bodies is an integral part of democratic control and accountability in the sphere of state policy in general, and defense policy in particular.  

In contemporary Russia, democratic control over nuclear policy has not yet become a reality. First, Russian society and the legislative branch have little influence on state policy as a whole – partly due to their weakness, and partly due to the general consolidation of the “executive vertical” in the country. They exert still less influence on defense policy, and no influence whatsoever over the holy of holies – the nation’s nuclear armaments.  

Second, the very act of raising the issue of democratic control and accountability in this sphere can, at best, evoke bewilderment or, at worst, suspicion of evil intentions. The significance of the factors surrounding nuclear arsenals – their sophisticated designs, the secrecy surrounding them (which also exists in the West although to much smaller degree), and the specific nature of these technologies which influences the strategy and plans for their application – may give the impression that it is absurd to raise the issue of democratic control in this field.  

Yet, not only is democratic control a legitimate issue, it is long overdue in Russia’s defense and security policy.


Why does society need to know its country’s plans for the development and application of nuclear weapons? Furthermore, why should it influence them – and how?

General-purpose troops and armaments, as well as the methods and goals of their application, comprise a military sphere that is comprehensible for the public at large; the Russian people have some idea of ongoing local conflicts, as well as a historical memory of past wars. As far as public opinion is concerned, general-purpose forces are not some “virtual reality” or abstract thing like nuclear weapons, although the new revolution in military affairs is dramatically changing the face of these systems.

Most sober-minded people would agree that the 60,000 tanks or 300 submarines, for example, deployed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s-1980s were more than the country needed for its defense. Presently, many discussions are underway as to whether Russia really needs a 1.2-million-strong army, whether it is a good idea to transform the conscript army into a voluntary one, how much money military officers should earn, and whether non-monetary benefits of the military are worth retaining.

Still more difficult are the questions: Is Russia’s 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads force (about the same number as in the U.S.A.) too large or too little? Will the 1,700-2,200 warheads that both sides will have in 2012 under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (signed in May 2002 in Moscow) be sufficient? For answers to these questions, it is important to know the state and prospects of the evolution of the strategic nuclear balance, various concepts for employing strategic nuclear forces, criteria of the adequacy of deterrence, the logic of strategic stability, and other esoteric matters not commonly known to the public.

The employment of conventional forces – even in undemocratic countries – requires, at the very least, the tacit consent of the people. After all, some people will be called upon to fight, while others will have to ensure the domestic support for the army. Preparations for military activities give society a possibility to form its attitude to these actions, since they usually require much time (the U.S. war against Iraq, for example, was prepared more than half a year in advance, while preparations for the second Chechen campaign in Russia took several months). In many countries, including the United States and the Russian Federation, the declaration of a state of war or a state of emergency, as well as the employment of armed forces abroad, requires parliamentary or congressional approval.

The question of employment of nuclear-missile weapons is quite a different matter. The flight time of a long-range ballistic missiles varies from 15 to 30 minutes. Thus, the political leadership of the target country will have, in the best case, a few minutes to decide on whether or not to launch a retaliatory missile strike. This means that the nation cannot have any effect on a decision to employ nuclear weapons either directly (through a referendum), or indirectly (through parliament).

Nuclear war does not require any involvement of broad popular masses. It would involve an insignificant part of the peacetime army, which does not exceed one percent of the country’s population. After the decision to employ nuclear weapons is made, the sanction is sent down the chain of command; at this point, only several thousand officers on duty get involved. In the most advanced command-control systems, the missile launch signal is transmitted directly from the national leadership’s highest command post via relay systems to launchers, bypassing the missile forces’ personnel.  

Still, democratic control and accountability with regard to nuclear weapons are not only possible but also necessary, although in a very special way that conforms to the nature of this class of weapon. This would be possible, however, only if society recognizes the need for democratic control over the entire range of state policy, including its defense policy.


Although the citizens of a nation do not make the final decision to employ nuclear weapons and do not participate in nuclear war, it is the nation, that is, the civilian population, which from the very beginning becomes the immediate target of devastating nuclear strikes. This factor makes a nuclear conflict very different from a conventional war, even a large-scale conventional war. Even if nuclear strikes were to be concentrated on military sites, command posts and industrial centers, in keeping with an accepted modern strategy, the collateral damage to the civilian population would amount to tens of millions killed during the first few hours of such a war.

This is why the nation has the right to influence nuclear policy. In the event of such a conflict, this policy will determine its fate more than any economic, social or political aspects of state policy, which are traditionally relegated to the sphere of democratic control and accountability. Thus, the very nature of these weapons prompts the need for democratic control.


The second reason is as follows. One of the important distinctions of nuclear weapons, and most importantly, strategic nuclear weapons, from conventional armaments is a rather limited range of their possible combat missions and methods of employment. For example, the task of a strategic missile or aircraft is very narrow: to hit a predetermined pinpoint or area target. The methods of their employment are limited as well: massive, grouped or single launch. A nuclear strike can be the first (pre-emptive), retaliatory or a launch-on-warning (carried out on a signal from a missile attack warning system before the enemy warheads reach their designated targets). In contrast, in various kinds of military and paramilitary operations [that is, military actions during peacetime, as well as operations involving local conflicts – Ed.], conventional aircraft, tanks and ships, for example, may be used in an infinite variety of ways.  

The technical characteristics of the weapon systems in service with the strategic nuclear forces, as well as the strength and composition of these forces, largely predetermine methods of their employment – at least against a nuclear-armed enemy. Such an opponent is the main target of the nuclear deterrence strategy. In turn, the probability of a nuclear conflict, with all its catastrophic consequences, depends not only on concomitant political factors, but also on the degree of stability of the strategic balance between the parties. The degree of stability depends on how strong is the incentive to deliver a first nuclear strike (this may result from a desire to avoid defeat, or the fear of a surprise enemy attack).

The above-mentioned technical characteristics of the weapon systems in service with the strategic nuclear forces (together with the force levels and composition of these forces, which include control and warning systems) tangibly affect this stability. Naturally, those technical characteristics do not dictate the methods of employing the strategic nuclear forces in any particular way. Yet, they logically offer the most effective, preferable ways of military employment of various systems.  

In 1990, Moscow and Washington agreed to classify as stabilizing the systems of strategic delivery vehicles with a greater survivability at launch sites and with a smaller number of warheads per delivery vehicle. These features make these types of systems less suited for a first strike and more for a retaliatory strike. And vice versa: the higher the vulnerability of weapon systems at launch sites and the more warheads they carry, the more they threaten their opponent, thus making themselves more attractive for and vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack – a factor which destabilizes strategic balance. The premise of this logic is that a first strike aims, above all, at disarming the enemy; otherwise, a devastating retribution would be inevitable.

The accuracy of modern guidance systems and the short flight time of strategic ballistic carriers make silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles of the other party poorly suitable for a retaliatory second strike. As for a launch-on-warning option, it is possible only if the warning and command-control systems are highly effective. This is particularly true if silo-based ICBMs are armed with multiple individually targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV), and if they threaten the strategic nuclear forces of the enemy with a disarming strike (like the U.S. MX Peacekeeper ICBM, or Russia’s RS-20 heavy missile, designated RS-18 in the West). As these missiles combine high strike power with vulnerability, they may be predominantly used in a first strike, thus literally inviting a pre-emptive strike and undermining strategic stability.  

As for submarine-launched nuclear missiles – such as Trident-2 system with W-88 warheads – these are highly survivable. However, if these missiles are equipped with powerful MIRVs, they are capable of delivering disarming strikes at fixed targets (like ICBM silos and command centers) as well, and therefore play a destabilizing role.

Alternatively, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a small number of low-yield MIRV warheads, as well as ground-mobile ICBMs with a single warhead or few MIRV warheads (Russia’s RSM-52 submarine-launched ballistic missile on 667 BDRM submarines, designated Delta IV in the West, for example, and ground-mobile Topol and Topol-M ICBMs) are stabilizing weapons. They have a high survivability potential and do not threaten the other side with a disarming strike, i.e., they are classical second-strike retaliatory systems. Such systems reduce the probability of nuclear war inasmuch as it depends on the state of military balance.  

Presently, Russian members of parliament rejoice like children whenever they hear about preservation or introduction of a new nuclear weapon in the Russian armed forces. Unable to estimate the contribution of various systems to strategic stability and security, they adhere to the principle “The more, the better.” This principle is not always right, however: many weapons are simply a waste of money. It would be better to use these funds on the introduction and/or maintenance of a weapon that is capable of strengthening the country’s defense capability and security.

An informed public and parliament can influence arms programs and strategic balance if they are aware of the importance of these factors; if they have the knowledge of these issues, they may reduce the probability of a nuclear war. In particular, Russian legislators could implement these measures through budget allocations for various programs, since, unlike their American counterparts, they do not have the power to endorse arms programs directly. If defense information becomes transparent enough, legislators may use the findings of independent experts to forward alternative proposals based on the understanding of all their strategic, political and economic implications.  

The third argument in favor of democratic control in the military nuclear sphere involves the financial aspect. Annual expenditures for the development and maintenance of nuclear arms comprise no more than 10 to 15 percent of defense expenditures. Yet, considering the 20-30-year life cycle of nuclear weapons – their development, deployment, maintenance and final disposal – this is a vast sum of money. Therefore, the rational use of resources in this field requires democratic control and accountability no less than other major parts of the federal budget.

Finally, nuclear arms policy has become a major part of foreign policy, being directly associated with negotiations and agreements on the limitation, reduction and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Society and parliament participate in this process through the ratification of treaties. However, if they do not have an adequate understanding of nuclear policy or are unable to critically estimate it, their participation turns into either an ideological opposition (as was the case with the seven-year debates in the State Duma over the START-2 Treaty) or a mere formality (as with the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in 2002).



Control from above, void of a democratic foundation, guarantees political loyalty of the military generals but denies the political leaders the ability to play a real role in defense policy and development of the armed forces. Their role gets limited to establishing the overall size of defense allocations, or to being an arbiter in case the various bureaucratic agencies fail to agree between themselves on some issues. Without alternative options of a defense policy, established by independent experts and discussed by parliament, political leadership has to deal with a monolithic position elaborated at lower levels of the military and defense-industry bureaucracy. Political leadership can have only marginal effect on this position.

Naturally, it is impossible for the head of state to be an expert in all spheres, and especially in one that is as complex as contemporary defense – and nuclear policy in particular. He must rely on the opinions of his subordinates. However, in a closed format, without broad debate occurring in parliament, in the press and at the independent scientific centers, defense agencies will be able to push through their decisions via the closest aides to the president, especially as aides usually come from the defense agencies.

But perhaps this is a normal way of molding defense policy? After all, the defense and security agencies and their research institutes comprise highly skilled experts, therefore, why not place full trust in them?  

Experience shows that this approach is incorrect, and not only with regard to defense policy but also to any other sphere of state policy in a democratic country. Executive control over all aspects of government is not a good idea because bureaucracy often pursues personal, rather than national, interests. Furthermore, bureaucratic agencies poorly coordinate their actions. It would be incorrect to say that bureaucracy comprises only malevolent or incompetent people. However, an individual working for a powerful bureaucratic organization will have to subordinate himself to its interests or leave.

The country’s political leadership in the person of the president and parliament must formulate national interests, as opposed to bureaucratic interests of various agencies; and these national interests must represent the priorities of various social groups within society. However, is such a goal actually feasible with regard to defense and nuclear policy when defense information remains strictly closed? How is it possible to define the national interest when there are no independent assessments and proposals available to the public, and executive agencies have a monopoly on the information and resist all attempts to criticize or amend their positions? The answer is obvious, as is the inevitability of mistakes, some of which can do serious damage to the country’s security and economy, examples of which are abundant.  

In 2000-2001, in order to redistribute resources in favor of the general-purpose forces, the Russian government sharply cut allocations for the national strategic nuclear forces. The cuts primarily affected ground-based missiles, the main component of these forces, including the procurement of mobile Topol-M ICBMs, the main program for their modernization. The technical characteristics of this system make it easily adaptable to changing strategic situations and most stabilizing of all weapon systems. Moreover, no other country besides Russia possesses a similar weapon, nor will they have one in the foreseeable future.

As a result, the situation with the general-purpose forces has not improved, because, most importantly, the military reform has stalled, while the strategic nuclear deterrence has been greatly undermined. If this policy persists (and there have been no official statements yet that it may change), in 10 to 15 years 90 percent of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces may be vulnerable at their deployment sites to hypothetical disarming strikes by the United States, Britain, France and, possibly, even China. Of course, it is extremely unlikely that these countries will attack Russia; nevertheless, the strategic stability will be undercut – with all of the ensuing consequences.  

Having such vulnerable strategic nuclear forces, Russia will have to rely increasingly on the launch-on-warning concept. However, in a situation when Russia’s early warning satellite constellation is weakening and most of the ground-based radar stations from the Soviet era remain on the territory of other post-Soviet states (almost all of them, incidentally, are now seeking NATO membership), continued reliance on this concept is becoming ever more dangerous. This problem is acquiring special importance considering the continuing proliferation of nuclear-missile weapons around the world, and the growing probability of accidental or provocative missile launches from various directions.

Some of the negative consequences of the decisions of 2000-2001 showed up immediately. In particular, the U.S. lost any interest in the continuation of negotiations with Russia on the limitation of strategic arms; the ABM Treaty, the START-2 Treaty (ratified by Russia in 2000) and the START-3 framework (signed in 1997) all collapsed.  

In a bid to improve the situation, Russia purchased obsolete silo-based missiles and bombers from Ukraine and extended the service life of its heavy ICBMs (in the same vulnerable silos). These moves on the part of Russia were quite expensive but did little to increase strategic stability. Later, Moscow announced it had developed a “magic weapon” – a missile with a gliding and maneuverable re-entry vehicle capable of penetrating any missile defense system. The announcement, however, did not impress Washington. No wonder: Russian armed forces buy only four to six Topol-M ICBMs a year and the scale of new missiles’ deployment may not be great – they will be much more expensive. Besides, the new missiles will need to be tested, put into production and ensured a highly survivable basing mode. (Since Russia has the U.S. in mind while developing these missiles, it is essential that they are capable of surviving a disarming strike.)

Following the events of September 11, however, a spirit of cooperation emerged in Russia-U.S. relations, and in May 2002, Moscow and Washington signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). This treaty, however, will hardly influence the objective process of strategic destabilization, since it does not limit either party in any way. Besides, it remains rather an agreement of intent: it does not establish any counting rules for warheads, or procedures for dismantling armaments. The treaty provides no reduction schedule or verification procedures. For example, the treaty calls for both countries to have no more than 1,700-2,200 warheads 10 years after the treaty’s ratification. The treaty, however, does not specify what warheads will be limited or how they will be counted under the established ceilings. SORT lacks the above set of instruments usual for such agreements. Until the year 2009, though, the verification regime of the START-1 Treaty will remain in force, but it will only provide Russia with information about the U.S. strategic nuclear forces rather than about the implementation of the Treaty by the United States.


It would seem that Russia, now lagging behind the U.S. in strategic nuclear potential while possessing weak general-purpose forces, must give this issue a greater importance. It must take avail of America’s interest in cooperation in many other international affairs in order to ensure an acceptable nuclear balance. However, Russia’s policy has been surprisingly passive; the 2002 Treaty has not been filled with legal or technical content. Washington’s nuclear arms policy has been harshly criticized in the United States itself, in Western Europe, in the United Nations and at the 7th Review Conference of the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which took place in New York in May 2005. Nevertheless, Russia’s Foreign and Defense Ministries have not put forward any new concerted proposals and offer scant criticism of American policy. Had there been democratic control and accountability in Russia’s nuclear policy, and if the public and specialists had more access to information on nuclear issues, such mistakes would have been preventable.  

Consider another example. Of all large powers, Russia is the most vulnerable to threats posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technologies: the majority of new and potential nuclear missile-capable countries are either located along the perimeter of Russian territory, or close enough to Russian territory to be a threat. More importantly, nuclear proliferation is creating favorable conditions for these technologies to be accessible to international terrorists, who are now engaged in armed struggle against Russia in the North Caucasus, and are threatening this country’s security in Central Asia.

In light of these conditions, one would expect Moscow to be the most ardent advocate of strengthening the NPT, regimes and mechanisms of nuclear and missile non-proliferation, and continuously introduce new initiatives in this field. Instead, Russia only half-heartedly reacts to new concepts of the U.S. and Western Europe (the Proliferation Security Initiative, the renunciation of the export of complete nuclear fuel cycle technologies, the obligation of accession to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 1997 Additional Protocol to the NPT, the code of missile technology exports). It is hard to avoid an impression that nuclear-missile proliferation does not really concern Russia and that the efforts to combat proliferation are being perceived as an annoying hindrance to Russia’s Atomic Energy Agency’s deals for the export of nuclear technologies and materials. Here again Russia’s public and parliament remain in blissful ignorance of this problem and fail to raise the issue of a serious revision of the state policy.  

Finally, returning to the issue mentioned at the beginning of this article: international cooperation in ensuring the safe storage of nuclear munitions and materials, the elimination of their surpluses, and the dismantling of decommissioned nuclear submarines. Obviously, by providing Russia with billions of dollars in aid, the West seeks to ensure its own security: if nuclear weapons or materials come into the hands of rogue states or terrorists, or if an ecological catastrophe should occur, the entire world will suffer the consequences.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and other countries have to address the same problems of the elimination of nuclear and chemical weapons; but it is them who help Russia, not vice versa. Hence, the growing tensions in relations between the parties. Apart from technical issues, there are many other factors impeding Russian-Western cooperation in this field (suffice it to mention Russia’s demand that the West pay value-added tax in keeping with its tax law, or the issue of liability for possible damage). In return for its aid, the West demands access to Russian nuclear facilities (beside the strategic nuclear forces inspected under START-1), yet Russia cannot make similar demands. Only as a goodwill gesture, the U.S. allows Russian representatives to visit some of its facilities. At the same time, Russia continues to develop new nuclear weapon systems, including strategic ones that would be capable of penetrating ABM defenses. Thus, Western countries raise the question: Why alleviate Russia’s financial burden caused by the elimination of weapons and allow it to spend more on new ones? 

Perhaps if there was democratic control over Russia’s nuclear policy, the state could adequately estimate its financial needs concerning the elimination of obsolete weapons. This might make it possible to allocate much more funds for the elimination and disposal of armaments (the lack of funding for this budget item has been continuing for over a decade) and thus remove Russia’s dependence on foreign countries. However, if Russia decides to continue accepting foreign aid, it must negotiate measures to develop partnership and cooperation in order to transform mutual nuclear deterrence, thus resolving the issues of contention for cooperation in this field.

Unfortunately, here too Moscow’s priorities remain undefined because of the compartmentalized bureaucratic narrow-mindedness and lack of coordination in mapping out state policy, as well as because of the absence of democratic control and accountability.  


If Russia had an effective system of democratic control and accountability, it would be possible to ask several questions concerning the sensitive issue of the authorization of the employment of nuclear forces. The information publicly available on this issue is very scant and not officially confirmed. It is possible, of course, that the actual state of affairs in this realm is quite satisfactory. However, if the available information is correct at least to some extent, then it may be prudent to question the implementation of a particular constitutional provision, which gives the power to authorize the use of nuclear forces only to the president – the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces.

According to published information, Russia’s Kazbek system, put into operation in the early 1980s, allows the head of state, no matter where he may be at a particular moment, to receive information about a missile attack and issue an order to deliver a nuclear strike by means of a portable electronic terminal named Cheget. This so-called ‘nuclear briefcase’ sends a signal, encrypted in a personal presidential code, to the central command post, which is then relayed to the command posts of ICBMs and nuclear-missile submarines. As is common within the sphere of strategic armaments, the Soviet Union followed the example of the U.S., which introduced such a system in the early 1960s.  

Yet, there have always been fundamental differences between the two ‘briefcase’ systems as regards organizational and legal aspects. There is plenty of information on the U.S. system from official sources and from a library of expert publications. In the United States, the decision to employ nuclear weapons must receive the consent of primary individuals involved in this process. However, only the U.S. president is in possession of the ‘briefcase,’ and he is always accompanied by a military officer. If the president is unable to perform his duties as commander-in-chief (due to illness, absence in the country, a security threat, etc.), the terminal is passed over to the vice-president. That is why the president and the vice-president never leave the country simultaneously. Furthermore, a special law specifies the procedures for passing over command in case both top executives die or lose communication in the event of a war. The chain of command consists of more than ten officials, beginning with the speaker of the House of Representatives, the Secretary of the Treasury, and so on. The Secretary of Defense is far behind them, while there are no military officers on the list.

The equivalent Soviet system operated in a different way from the very beginning, and Russia has borrowed this system unchanged. In addition to the presidential ‘nuclear briefcase’ (in the past, this terminal was in possession of the Communist Party General Secretary), there are two more such ‘briefcases’ – one remains with the minister of defense and the other with the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff. This setup begs the question: How can these three terminals issue an order to launch a missile strike? In unison, as three parts of a single code, or each on an individual basis? There is no answer to this question from official sources.  

If the signal to launch strategic nuclear forces proceeds from all the three sources that would seem rather strange, since the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff are not equal to the president: the first is subordinate to the head of state, while the second is subordinate to the minister. From the legal point of view, the supreme commander’s decision to use nuclear weapons does not require confirmation from the other two officials. Furthermore, how can the country react to a surprise missile attack if the president is abroad or is unable to issue an order for some other reason? (In Boris Yeltsin’s times, there were many sarcastic suppositions to this effect.)

It would be appropriate here to recall the coup attempt in Moscow in August 1991, when President Mikhail Gorbachev was denied access to the “nuclear button,” while one of the coup leaders, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, was separated from his terminal after the coup attempt failed. Did this mean that the “beheaded” country temporarily lost the ability to deliver a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to a surprise attack? It seems it did not; at least, no one in the Soviet Union or abroad showed any concern about such a possibility, because the third terminal apparently remained at the General Staff, which means control over the strategic nuclear forces was never lost.  

If it is true that the three terminals do not operate in unison, while the individual possessors of the “Chegets” can give missile launch orders separately, is there a technical possibility of starting a nuclear war without the decision of the president? According to the Russian Constitution, if the president is unable to give orders, he is succeeded not by the defense minister or the chief of the General Staff but by the prime minister. Such a succession occurred only once: in 1996, Boris Yeltsin underwent a heart surgery, and then-prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin took over the nuclear briefcase. Lately, the mass media has not reported about the handover of the nuclear terminal to the Cabinet chairperson during the president’s frequent visits to other countries. Moreover, the president and the prime minister often go abroad simultaneously, so how is it possible they are performing their “nuclear duties?” Who, at this time, has the powers of such an important decision and what about the principle of political control over the main decision in defense policy?

There is no doubt that presently both the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff are politically loyal and administratively subordinate to the president and will never act against his will, especially in such an important sphere as the employment of strategic nuclear forces. Times change, however, just as the personnel at the highest state posts do. It is impossible to predict how the “triple button” will operate in a possible crisis if the president is suddenly out of reach. What would transpire should the proliferation of nuclear missiles result in an accidental or provocative missile strike against Russia? What would happen in the event of a nuclear terrorist act?  

In the Soviet Union, there was no notion of political or civil control over the army; there was only unified “military-political” control, which was in line with the Soviet totalitarian political regime. In today’s Russia, which is following a democratic path, as President Putin said in his April 25, 2005 address to the Federal Assembly, the political leadership must have firm and technically guaranteed control over the most important of all decisions – the decision to employ nuclear weapons.


Making information available to the public about nuclear armaments requires a well thought-out approach; after all, there is much information that must remain secret. This includes technical aspects of many existing and future weapon systems and nuclear munitions, command-control and warning systems, operational plans for the combat employment of forces, and their target lists.

A similar secrecy practice is in force in many democratic countries, including the U.S., Great Britain and France. Those countries may make mistakes in their nuclear policies, as well. However, the advantage of a democratic system is not that it guarantees against mistakes, but that it allows free discussion on nuclear issues based on reliable information, and the timely correction of mistakes before they cause irreparable damage.  

As for Russia, much of the information on the deployed forces, programs for their development, the allocation of financial resources, and measures to strengthen strategic stability must be transparent. This is especially the case since Russia shares much of this information with foreign countries (information exchanges, for example, under the START-1 Treaty) and the United Nations (which Russia informs about its nuclear program funding). There is no good reason to classify this data – if, of course, government agencies do not seek to preserve their monopoly on decision-making and conceal their mistakes. In order to remove the senseless veil of secrecy surrounding such information, essential amendments are required in the law On State Secrets.

The legislative branch must have a greater role in forming defense policy in general, and nuclear policy in particular. This can be accomplished through parliamentary hearings, investigations and, possibly, an amendment to the constitution that would give the Federal Assembly control powers (now it has only legislative and representative powers). Parliament deputies need more information than just the size of budget allocations for utility services or clothing allowances for the Army and the Navy. They need funding information that will let them form an opinion about major priorities of defense policy and military development. These would include nuclear deterrence at the global level and in theaters of operations, offensive and defensive strategic systems, and general-purpose forces, the potential for conducting large-scale and local wars, rapid response forces and forces for peacekeeping operations, as well as the distribution of resources for countering possible threats from the west, south and east of the country. To make this a reality, the law On Budget Classification needs to be revised.

In addition, the law On Defense requires amending in order to legalize the institution of civilian control over the Ministry of Defense. This proposal includes the defense minister’s staff subordinated only to him and capable of objectively assessing proposals coming from the commanders of the armed forces and the General Staff.  

It is also necessary to adopt a special law that would considerably enhance the role of Russia’s Security Council. The Council must not be just an advisory body to the president, but a supradepartmental organization intended to analyze the positions of the country’s defense and security agencies. It would focus on coordinating the efforts of the security bodies in implementing presidential and parliamentary security policy, especially in areas where domestic and external problems and challenges converge.

The possibility of changing the high-level nuclear control system (Kazbek) with reference to Russia’s political system, together with the introduction of a law On the Succession of Supreme Command, warrants consideration. This would establish the order in which state officials, besides the president and the prime minister, assume power in a war to decide on the use of nuclear weapons.  

Finally, the government should strongly encourage expert studies and listen to recommendations of independent scientific and public organizations and individual authoritative experts. Given free access to ample and trustworthy information, they will be able to propose alternative approaches to security problems, which would be free of departmental pressure. Their efforts will help the president and parliament make the best decisions on the long-term state strategy.

Last updated 30 july 2005, 17:16

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